Welcome to 18-52, a weekly review column that tackles two current releases on your cinema screen and in your stream.
Standing in the shared hallway between their apartments, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is pleading with her friend Giles (Richard Jenkins) to help her break the amphibian man (Doug Jones) out of the government facility where she works. As Giles is intent on the idea being impossible, Elisa’s emphatic signing asks him to say what she’s signing aloud, so that she can be sure he understands. Giles dutifully repeats, “When he looks at me, he does not know - how - I am incomplete.” Del Toro’s new monster movie “The Shape of Water” is a sumptuous ode to movies, to love and to monsters, or as he calls them, our “patron saints of imperfection.”
Somewhere in America, in a top-secret government facility in the 1960s, a mute cleaner named Elisa (Hawkins) encounters an amphibious creature (Doug Jones). While scientist (Michael Stuhlbarg) examines the creature and violent security agent Strickman (Michael Shannon) coaxes the beast into violent outbursts with prods and torment, Elisa forms a secret connection. Writers Vanessa Taylor and Del Toro set the story alongside the tension of the Civil Rights movement, in the middle of the Cold War a brief address from J.F.K announcing the blockade of Cuba can be heard over the radio). Del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor are intent to use the swarm of issues engulfing the characters as the noise they’re desperate to drown out.
Del Toro heaps ravishing vision upon ravishing vision in this escapist, fairy tale romance. The lead character Elisa (and Giles) lives above a movie theatre in “The Shape of Water.” This setting is the perfect allegory for the way that Del Toro makes movies. He’s got a sensual gothic sensibility, an affinity with monsters but humming constantly in his subconscious informing every choice, every blooming frame, is the deep influence of the classical motion picture reel.
Elisa’s (Sally Hawkins) experience of the world is one of isolation. Although she’s able to communicate with sign to Giles (Jenkins) and Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) there’s a lack of intimacy in her life (one that is very candidly “addressed”). Elisa cannot articulate her role in the world, and when she meets this Aquatic man she finds kinship with his spirit.
Elisa’s deepest friendship and care is for Richard Jenkins’ Giles, the publicly ambiguous yet private queen, whose working life in the isolation of his home intimates retreat from prejudice in the advertising world. Jenkins confessional blathering to Hawkins’ Elisa provides the levity throughout the film, even in some of the most awkward situations.
Doug Jones’ performance as Amphibian Man is one of elegance and animalistic reflex. It continues the ongoing divine collaboration between the often unrecognisable actor and the director. Playing Abe Sapian in the “Hellboy” film, Fauno in “Pan’s Labyrinth,” The Ancient in TV Series “The Strain,” and even Lady Sharpe in “Crimson Peak; Jones’ brand of physical performance seems to have the right mixture of grace and creepiness to inhabit every new beastly creation from the Mexican maestro.
Writers Del Toro and Vanessa Taylor have to orchestrate a tapestry of characters to fill in the swelling storm around Elisa. Zelda (Spencer) does enough talking for the two leading cleaning ladies. Elisa is Zelda’s sounding board for the frustrations of an increasingly lazy husband and the pressures of her obligations. Spencer plays Zelda with an aversion to either woman being placed under scrutiny, especially Strickland.
Michael Shannon’s Richard Strickland is a wonderfully insecure villain. He’s clearly a military man, barely able to grasp civilian life outside of performing the specific functions of his work. The post war period, the collective existential crisis of Vietnam/Watergate, is near on the horizon in “The Shape of Water.” The post war period is one that instigates and agitates the search for purpose. It’s the Civil Rights Movement, sexual revolution, and for affluent white people, there’s scientology and ‘self-help.’ Stirckland is a beautiful amalgam of contradictions; brutality against what he considers to be the demonic beast, horrific intent (willing to tear off his own rotting fingers after an attempted injury repair doesn’t take), stilted attempts to become an American ideal - even driving the quintessential car and strange positive thinking. Shannon is all kinds of weird and wonderful.
Michael Stuhlbarg’s Dr. Robert Hoffstetler is a wonderfully conflicted scientist embroiled in this story between the tyrannical Strickland, his political allegiances and his own ethical burden creates a beautiful silent observer for this blooming connection between Elisa and the Aquatic man. Stuhlbarg is an effortlessly complex performer, conveying a full range of emotions and internal conflicts.
Del Toro creates beautifully orchestrated pastiche moments that are both original and reveal his abiding love for classic movies. The difference is that instead of devolving into a collage of admiration, Del Toro drags you in with deep emotional appraisal of the characters in the frame. Hawkins face, warmed by the setting sun, trudging through the laborious commute is almost guaranteed to be etched in my mind; we ride the rays of warm light into her soul. It would not be Del Toro if it didn’t balance the frightening, and despite your inclination to assume that it’s the Aquatic man glowing with flickering lights, it’s actually Strickland. Shannon, as Strickland, delivers the worst “fish hook” to a man with a bullet hole in his cheek that I can ever remember on screen.
Del Toro’s previous masterworks, “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006) and “The Devil’s Backbone” (2001) are parables intertwined with real world atrocities. In those film’s Del Toro processes his history; they’re his essential stories, needing to be told. “The Shape of Water” feels like it’s yet another Del Toro work that would not be denied. Set amongst the ideological flux beneath the shiny cordiality of 60s post war America, instead of the Spanish Civil War, lies an escapist wonder. “The Shape of Water” finds a way to cut through the affronting inter species love-making to find the truth in the deepest desires for an essential connection.
After the sheer visionary delight of Del Toro, a monster master, we transition to something quite monstrous. “Bright,” Netflix’s first foray into event blockbusters sees a big budget imagining of what would happen if creatures that occupy Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” universe where alive today. At the time I write this review a sequel, featuring the return of all principle creatives and cast signed on, is in production.
Set in a reimagined L.A populated by mythical creatures; “Bright” is the tale of the first unlikely cop and orc police partners (Will Smith and Joel Edgerton) who become targets of orc gangs, corrupt cops and dark elves (Noomi Rapace) after discovering a magic wand and an elvish ‘bright’ (Lucy Fry) with the power to wield it.
David Ayer the screenwriter and director of muscular films like “Training Day”, “End of Watch”, “Fury” and the disappointing “Suicide Squad,” is on board to anchor the fantastical scenario to the ethic texture of L.A from his most critically lauded efforts. However, it’s screenwriter Max Landis’ vision for this world that seems to overpower the occupation of this altered L.A or allow for Ayer’s characteristic conjuring of engaging intense tales of strained camaraderie. Landis most definitely has an aptitude for identifying an alluring premise, loaded with huge potential. Ayer is a director (and writer) that seems to understand the significance of the racial landscape of L.A and the significance of conflict that citizens operate with both a deep reliance and distrust of the institutions that claim to reinforce justice. The Banksy style graffiti throughout this magical L.A alludes to the ongoing oppression; a diverse multicultural humanity is the buffer between Elvish elites and an impoverished Orc underclass. However instead of attempting to utilise the additional species as a way to put contemporary racial tensions into focus it seems to have its feet firmly in 80s sledge hammer approach to racial integration. In scene after scene there’s a relentless repetition to reinforce meaning. After one line in one scene we understand that the inclusion of an orc in the L.A.P.D has been a “diversity hire” and there’s at least 15 more times in subsequent scenes that characters repeat the same sentiment — “Trading Places” is 35 years old, STOP.
Smith is loud and cartoonish as Daryl Ward. Edgerton’s Jakoby is the highlight of the film, being able to add nuanced emotion to the character despite the mountain of prosthetics. Rapace’s Leilah and Edgar Ramírez’s Kandomere look like the most awesome steam-punk elves you could ever hope for; but are utilised like great cosplayers at a Comic Con.
“Bright” is not a good film. On a ride along in the early stages of “Bright” Jakoby (Edgerton) and Ward (Smith) ride into an Orc neighbourhood where a bunch of white L.A cops are in the process of beating two orcs into submission with batons. As Smith looks on, he’s barely registering the disturbance, while Edgerton – emoting very well considering the suffocating orc facial prosthetics — cannot help but shudder at the brutality. The scene is a perverse recreation of the Rodney King assault that triggered the riots; the change though is that it’s broad daylight and this fringe orc underclass watches on with dire acceptance. Ayer and Landis feel like they’re willing to use this scenario as a disposable throwaway, especially as an iconic black actor rides shotgun to the scene. The riot inducing event feels like it is being projected into this blockbuster fantasy with banality. The use of the iconography is done for the “cool” short hand, ignoring the trivialisation. In “Bright” humanity is as ugly and careless as the filmmakers.
“The Shape of Water” (2017) - ★★★★
“Bright” (2017) - ★½
“The Shape of Water” (2017)
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Written by: Guillermo del Toro (screenplay/story) & Vanessa Taylor (screenplay)
Sally Hawkins ... Elisa Esposito
Michael Shannon ... Richard Strickland
Richard Jenkins ... Giles
Octavia Spencer ... Zelda Fuller
Michael Stuhlbarg ... Dr. Robert Hoffstetler
Doug Jones ... Amphibian Man
David Hewlett ... Fleming
Nick Searcy ... General Hoyt
Directed by: David Ayer
Written by: Max Landis
Will Smith ... Daryl Ward
Joel Edgerton ... Nick Jakoby
Noomi Rapace ... Leilah
Edgar Ramírez ... Kandomere
Lucy Fry ... Tikka
Veronica Ngo ... Tien
Alex Meraz ... Serafin
Happy Anderson ... Montehugh
Ike Barinholtz ... Pollard
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